Should we take Kingsley Amis more seriously as a poet?

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If Sir Kingsley Amis was still alive today, on the occasion of his centenary – an event which would owe quite a remarkable sum to medical science, and might, given the context of this particular weekend, even be considered a second Resurrection account – it might be amused at how it has been treated by posterity. I wrote about Kingers’ declining fortunes, justified or not, for the May issue of The critic, but one area that I have only been able to touch on in the most fleeting fashions is one that many Ami aficionados prefer not to dwell on. Yes – oh dear yes – Kingsley Amis wrote poetry. Many would have liked it not to be so.

It was never picked up by Faber, the traditional poetry publisher

It does a disservice to one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century. One of the oft-repeated ironies of his period friendship with Philip Larkin is that for much of their early lives, each man saw himself in the opposite sphere to the one in which he came to excel: Larkin wanted be a novelist, poet Friends. Big Phil’s published novels Julie and A girl in winter are now regarded with a certain reserved respect – and students of social history should cherish Juliethe precise, chilling evocation of wartime Oxford – but they are unlikely to be particularly remembered without the more remarkable success he found in poetry. (A third novel, The New World Symphony, was dropped, Larkin despairingly saying that “You know I can’t writing this book… I’m not even sure I’m interested enough in it to continue. “)

Friends, on the other hand, persisted in poetry throughout his career, with increasingly diminishing returns. A collected poems was published in 1979, but that was less because it was a work that particularly deserved a volume of its kind, and more because his shrewd agent Jonathan Clowes realized he could double the lead of his client with his new publisher Hutchinson. (It was telling that it was never picked up by Faber, the mainstream poetry publisher, who formed an important and enduring relationship with Larkin.) Not surprisingly, no other poetry collections appeared during Larkin’s lifetime. ‘Friends, and it seems unlikely that a posthumous selection of unpublished work will appear at this distance, though perhaps some enterprising Jake Balokowksy type are digging through Friends’ papers at the Huntingdon Library in California right now, determined to put together one last slim collection of occasional verses in the belated centennial celebration.

If it were to appear, it would be fascinating to see if it is better than the existing work. Friends’ second wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, compared his verses dismissively to those of Larkin, saying she missed her friend’s “devoted and chaste” commitment to The Art – no bachelor pad in Hull for the popular well living – but also suggested that her former husband would have liked to write more poetry. Beneath his public image of bluff, fellow hail and meet (carefully cultivated throughout his life), Amis was both insecure and vaguely anxious about his reputation as a poet, even as he called the writing of ‘a limited risk venture’. He commented, while debating whether to include poems written in the 70s in his collected poems, “there are five (no doubt there should be more) that I feel dubious about: will they add to my reputation or tend to screw it all up?”

His critical writings on poetry were often hilarious

Ultimately, the poems that didn’t impress Amis never made it into the anthology, which nevertheless feels like a play with much of its fiction from the 1950s. Read its collected poems now Amis, like Larkin, was clearly inspired by simple, straightforward English poets such as Hardy and Housman who have always been loved by novelists for the approachable way in which they convey their universal themes of longing, loss and regret. Yet there were also sidesteps; Amis’ Welsh connections (he was a lecturer at Swansea University) were recognized in his moving and elegiac sequence ‘The Evans Country’, and he was unafraid of self-deprecation in his writing of a way that Larkin never was. His semi-comical semi-bitter poem “Something Nasty In The Bookshop” could almost be his friend’s work, if it weren’t for the fact that he’s both more sardonic and, frankly, less good:

Should poets bicycle pump the human heart
Or crush it flat?
The love of man is a thing apart in the life of man;
Girls aren’t like that.

We men have a well-considered love; Our things
Can do without.
Women don’t seem to think that’s good enough;
They write about it.

And the horrible way their poems expose them
Just don’t hit them.
Women are really much nicer than men:
No wonder we love them.

Amis remained uncertain throughout his life about his work, and even his performance. A March 7, 1980 letter to Larkin makes a joking but not joking reference to a criticism of how “listening to Friends read [his 1956 collection] A box of samples on the Marvell Press recording, one is surprised to find how little expressive her voice is and, compared to Larkin’s recordings, how chaste and impersonal her delivery is. Although his allusion (“And on these records, how chaste and impersonal my delivery is compared to yours HAHHAHAHHAHAH”) is decidedly pleasant, there is something miserable about a famous, wealthy and bestselling novelist who feeds more grudges from a quarter of a century before, only to be evoked in a letter to a friend who had accomplished far more in his originally chosen field than he had ever done.

However, this is not to completely dismiss the idea of ​​”Kingsley Amis, poet”. His critical writings on poetry were often hilarious (on Edward Lear, whom he despised: “the lands where the Jumblies live may be scarce, but neither far nor short enough to suit me”), always insightful and sometimes revealing in inadvertently. , such as his observation of Tennyson that “[he] was sensitive to criticism. Almost all artists are, major as minimal. And when Amis wrote about Dylan Thomas, whom he once revered, he made insightful comments about the inner lives of poets, even as he condemned the Welsh windbag by association: “Poets are usually passionate about a certain un- relevance; cooking, racing, painting, parakeets; not this one.”

But what fascinated Amis himself? The cynic might say “try to be Philip Larkin”. But it’s a gross and unfair misreading of his work, let alone his life. At its best, Kingers’ poetry has its own startlingly tired integrity, as if the school clown had read “Adlestrop” and secretly tried to spend the next few years writing his own version of it. Poems such as “Senex”, “AEH” – the inevitable Housman tribute – and “A Reunion” have cumulative power, if read the right way, the Amisian spirit, with a glass of Amisian spirit at hand, which I have found can produce all the effects of deep emotion.

Surely now is the time, as we celebrate (or mourn) Kingsley’s centenary, to return to his poems in the spirit of good-humored inquiry, rather than mere dismissal. You may even be surprised by what you find there.

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